Johnny Cash was a black-clad baritone whose rural roots and songs of the downtrodden made him a revered, Lincolnesque figure in the history of American popular music.
With a signature stage greeting of "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," spare music and a voice like the locomotives he often sang about, the singer's persona outsized his own music, and no country star stretched further beyond Nashville than Cash. As television star — usually playing himself or cowboys — or as author or activist, the singer put together a career that spanned five decades in the spotlight. In all, Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs and won 11 Grammys. Cash was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996 and was also the first person inducted into both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll halls of fame, in 1980 and 1992, respectively.
In his songs about laborers, gunfights, junkies and hard-luck heroes, as well as in his considerable volumes of spiritual music, Cash used his unvarnished vocals to further the musical mission of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie — to sing the song of the everyman. He sang about society's underdogs ("Man in Black"), Native Americans ("The Ballad of Ira Hayes") and the dehumanization of inmates ("San Quentin").
"He is a true American hero, beloved the world over as much for his kindness and compassion and championing of the underdog as for the power of his art," singer and actor Kris Kristofferson, who wrote the Cash hit "Sunday Morning Coming Down," said. "He's been my inspiration ... his fierce independence and free spirit, balanced with his love of family, children and his fellow man, will stand as a shining example of the best of what it means to be human. And he was damned funny, even in the darkest times."